Salt – Health or Hazard?

Recently I read a post by Maldon Salt that every cell in the body contains salt, and that an average adult contains about 250g of salt, which is the equivalent to a box of their delicious sea salt.  This got me thinking about salt.  As a food scientist and chef I use it all the time and when teaching, often I am challenged by clients about the amount of salt I’m putting into a recipe.

Salt is essential to human life, and our bodies cannot produce it.  We need salt for our bodies to function properly, regulating the amount of fluid in our bodies and maintaining our nervous system.  Literally our blood, sweat and tears are salty.

Saltiness is one of the basic human tastes.  For millennia we have been using salt to preserve and flavour food.  Wars, revolutions and freedom movements have started over salt.  It is used in many religious rituals and is a symbol of friendship.  Salt is part of our everyday speech in words such as salary and salad or phrases such as “the salt of the earth”.

However government information advises us to only consume 6g of salt a day – that’s just over 1 teaspoon, as that is the recommended daily amount (RDA) an adult needs for their body to function.  Too much and you can be susceptible to high blood pressure and stroke, too little and our blood thickens and affects our nervous systems, thyroid function and blood pressure… so what is right?

To cut out salt completely in our diets is almost impossible as most foods (meat and vegetables) have approximately 12% naturally occurring salt.  We can reduce the amount we consume by how much we add during cooking and at the table.  It is processed foods that are the danger zone, which often contain a higher salt content to improve the flavour and shelf life of the product.   Everyday ingredients such as stock cubes, pasta sauces, cheese and bacon includes salt where it is added by the manufacturer for preservation.  Always check the label and use in moderation and try and cook from scratch – it’s much healthier all round.

When cooking, be practical about the amount of salt you use and think about the ratio of the quantities you are using, e.g. a teaspoon (5 grams) in a dish that will serve 4, will be less than 1 gram per serving.  When researching this topic I realised that many recipes, rather than specify an amount of salt, are using alternatives such as Worcestershire sauce or stock cubes – so take care with the amount you use.  In all cases, as a chef teacher, I would advise you to taste as you cook and add the seasoning, always adjust to suit your palate.

For some recipes the amount of salt is a definite requirement for a successful outcome.  For example, when making bread, a recipe usually requires 1 teaspoon ie 5 grams.  Salt is essential when bread making, not only for flavour but to retard the yeast otherwise you get a dough that looks like an extra in a Science Fiction movie!  5 grams dispersed across an 800g-1kg loaf will not be very much – much less than a ¼ gram a slice.

In hot weather or when we exercise, we need to replace the salt as well as the liquid we lose through sweat – this is particularly important for children and older people.  If we don’t then our blood thickens and affects our blood pressure. By just drinking water the levels of salt in our bodies are diluted and can cause the body to be less responsive.

Children and babies need much less as their internal organs need to develop to process salt.

So in conclusion- Salt – is it fundamental to life, or a health hazard?  We need salt to stay healthy and like many things in moderation.  By avoiding processed foods we can easily cut down the amount of salt we eat.  Cutting it out entirely is risky, so a pinch of salt will definitely make food more palatable and healthy.

 

The Cooking Academy provides a variety of courses and our chef tutors provide advice and information on the nutritional benefits of ingredients and seasoning.

www.maldonsalt.co.uk

www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/salt-nutrition/

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other info.

  • The word salary is based on salt; therefore “worth one’s salt” refers to the salary of a Roman soldier.
  • Salad, comes from the Roman’s custom of salting leaf vegetables.
  • “Salt of the earth” means the perfect, the worthiest and most honest (quoted in the Bible Matthew 5:13)